Books I bought in January: “The Polysyllabic Spree” by Nick Hornby, “High Fidelity” by Nick Hornby, “Wonder Boys” by Michael Chabon.
Books I read in January: all the ones above, “Vernon God Little” by D.B.C. Pierre, “The Grim Grotto” by Lemony Snicket.
OK, so I kind of stole this format from Nick Hornby, whose compilation of columns from literary magazine “The Believer” was recently published in the extremely readable “The Polysyllabic Spree.” The only problems with “Spree” is that it is too short and too nice. Neither of these problems is Hornby’s fault. Writers do not have much choice in the length of their columns — trust me, I know — and the board of “The Believer” (aka the cult-like Polysyllabic Spree) ordered Hornby to strike the names of books he disliked. So Hornby can loathe a book, but he can’t warn us. For such biting critiques, we are advised to look to more bilious critics at high-end newspapers. Or me, since I don’t take no orders from nobody.
Anyhow, I like books, and I really enjoyed reading about someone else’s book life, which sums up “Spree” pretty nicely. The man knows books. Then I got on a Hornby kick and, while I was in Bethesda, Md. during the blizzard a few weeks ago, visiting a friend and getting my butt kicked by the steel-toed State Department, I visited a fabulous little shop called “Politics and Prose” and picked up a copy of “The Believer,” which you can’t get in New Haven. Sadly, the issue was Hornby-free — I think his contract’s kaput.
I bought “High Fidelity” at the same shop. I read “Fidelity” at break-neck speed, having already seen the film, which I admit isn’t my favorite John Cusack vehicle. The movie-then-book thing is always a mistake because you keep visualizing the actors when you read the book. And Jack Black is not a good person to have in your head for that many hours. Worse, now I have the impulse to see the film again.
In “Spree” I was thrilled to learn that Hornby shares my Damien Rice fetish. I mean, did anyone else think the soundtrack and Natalie Portman’s character eating pavement were the only reasons “Closer” wasn’t a total waste of time (if only Natalie had been hit by a bus instead of grazed by a hansom cab)? So I couldn’t help but be disappointed that our tastes diverged in “Fidelity.” My mad love for U2 has begun to abate recently, but I still think he was a tad harsh on the boys. At least give them “The Sweetest Thing.”
I also saw “Wonder Boys” before I read it (naughty me, I know). I liked it, I admit, mostly because of Robert Downey Jr., who, let’s face it, is the best part of most things he’s been in, including, but not limited to, “Ally McBeal” and prison. At any rate, I bought “Wonder Boys” despite the copy’s neon pink and green cover, and I read it in about two days. It’s addictive, but I couldn’t get hooked, and if you’re of the 18 to 25 crowd, which I think most of you are, I don’t think you will either. The protagonist, Grady Tripp, is burned out. On the other hand, Rob, of “High Fidelity,” simply hasn’t been lit. I got Rob. Grady kind of scared the bejeezus out of me. And yeah, part of it was probably that I’m more in sync with Cusack than Michael Douglas, but honey, you probably are, too.
I read all of “The Grim Grotto” in the cafe of Barnes and Noble. The book smacked every pessimistic misanthropic pinball rattling within my arcade machine of a soul into their appropriate holes. The book continues the grisly tale of three orphans being messed about by adults, well-meaning and otherwise, and taunted by the horrible Carmelita Spats who calls them “cakesniffers” (Seriously. Sounds awful — and yet, cake is quite nice-smelling.) Earlier episodes have gone down many a tenuous path that I feared might lead to a subplot quagmire where quite a few otherwise excellent books have found their execrable ends. “Grotto,” which is number 11 out of an anticipated 13 books in the series, was good enough to allay these fears by beginning to tie up all those loose threads that could have hung Daniel Handler by his Snicket. A scanty two books left to be written and read, that is all “A Series of Unfortunate Events” has left me to dread.
And then there was “Vernon God Little” — the literary equivalent of Miro’s burlap paintings. Burlap, you think. That can’t possibly work. But, oh, then it does. You see, there’s a school shooting, but unlike two other well-received books, which will remain nameless, in which a school shooting is tacked on the end to the books’ ultimate detriment, in “Vernon,” the school shooting is the MacGuffin. What we care about is Vernon, since every one else, from the media to his immediate family, seem hell-bent on shooting him up full of scapegoat serum. Sure, the first chapter is a bit taxing — that the Jesus under observation is a boy and not the Savior takes a while to process, and then there’s Vernon’s tendency to use -en instead of -ing or even -in’ to turn the f-word into an adjective. But once you get past that, you’re in the land of truly awesome writing. This is story-telling the way it was meant to be.
On Tuesday, I heard Ethan Coen say he didn’t want to make the kind of movie where the audience learns something and grows. Everyone laughed because, well, the Coens make hit films and are geeky gods of the college set and it would be rude not to. But I don’t believe in it.
Maybe I didn’t learn anything I didn’t already know from the books I read this month. “The Grim Grotto” even employs the water cycle to purposefully lure readers into throwing the book down. Like the Coens’ films, all the books I read were both not quite drama and not quite comedy, but a little bit of both. Despite all the bad, stupid things that people did to each other and themselves, there’s that bit of human redemption you find dangling from the binding. You tug on it hard, maybe expecting the book to unravel when you do, but you can’t because it’s tied in deep. And you know what it is, too — the heartstring, the writers’, not yours or mine. They can’t help putting it in there, or else they wouldn’t write the kinds of stories they do. Maybe they don’t count on us seeing the string, but we do if it’s good, and if it’s great — well, hell, Ethan. We f’-en grow.